Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) read the stories of the familiar names one by one.
There was Stacey Thompson, the U.S. Marine who was drugged and raped 14 years ago in Okinawa. Then, Leslie Ironroad, a Native-American woman who was so brutally raped that she died a week later in 2002. And then, there was Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who was shot in the face by members of the Taliban.
Boxer briefly paused from the podium at the dimly-lit studio at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., before going into the meat of the address.
“Even though I have championed women’s rights and women’s equality my entire career, there have been times in the past when I closed my eyes because what I saw was just too heartbreaking,” she said. “But no more. None of us can afford to look away any longer.
“Not when 35 percent of women around the globe experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Not when one in six women in the United States will be a victim of an attempted or completed rape. Not when the Defense Department estimates that there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the U.S. military last year alone – and only 10 percent were even reported, let alone prosecuted. And no, we cannot afford to look away when one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime.”
On Thursday, Boxer delivered the keynote address at “A Call to Action: Taking a Stand Against Gender-Based Violence,” a special event conducted by CARE, a humanitarian organization focused on women in low-income areas, and The New Republic. The speech is well-timed. In a few weeks, Boxer plans to reintroduce the International Violence Against Women Act, legislation that would use U.S. foreign policy to address violence against women.
This year, there have been signs of progress on the topic from domestic and world leaders. In February, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act – legislation that states that all women affected by domestic violence and sexual assault should be protected from violence in the U.S. In March, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women made additional commitments to help prevent gender-based violence.
Boxer stressed the need keep the momentum going, even invoking a line from Albert Einstein: "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
Another advocate in the fight to reduce the rate of gender-based violence is Neil Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that helps young men redefine masculinity as part of preventing violence against women. Before Boxer's speech, Irvin joined a panel of leading advocates to discuss solutions for gender-based violence.
America Tonight caught up with Irvin after the event. Questions and answers are edited for clarity.
America Tonight: Take me back to the moment or event that helped influence you to take an active role against gender-based violence.
Neil Irvin: I’m a youth advocate. My passion is young people. I honestly didn’t know there were theories and in an industry associated with youth development. I had always just enjoyed working with young people. Growing up, I always felt loved and safe and comforted by my parents, so that culture and upbringing always made sense to me. Then, I got to work with young people and I saw the impact that adults could have on their lives. The opportunity to join Men Can Stop Rape was also a chance to work with men of color in D.C. In learning more about the issue of sexual assault and domestic violence against women, I recognized what part I could play in helping to prevent that.
AT: In your experience, what is the most common point in a young man’s life for an adult to have a conversation with them about how to treat a woman? What have you seen?
NI: We think all our young people, whether they’re from affluent communities or impoverished communities, we think all our young people are at risk. They’re all at risk for being normalized in a patriarchal and misogynistic society that teaches boys that women are less than men, and teaches them their masculinity is tied to athletic accomplishment, economic accomplishment or sexual accomplishment. That really narrow, rigid view disconnects them from emotional intelligence and leaves them vulnerable to not only perpetrating assaults, but normalizing it in other people’s lives as well.
AT: Talk a little bit about what Men Can Stop Rape is doing in D.C. I know you’ve established the Men of Strength club, which helps support and educate young men at an early age who are at risk.
NI: We’d like to say that once you’re a Men of Strength member that you’ll never do anything again, but some guys are doing really well in their lives, while others are doing really well by staying out of jail. We have a whole range of people that we work with and as men, we’re responsible for being our best selves that we can be. It’s about making it about our humanity and not our masculinity, and I think that’s the challenge of having enough network and enough infrastructure and enough capacity to help support them through each developmental stage of their lives.
AT: How do you think the national dialogue concerning gender-based violence has intensified since the events in Steubenville, Ohio? What role, if any, has that episode played in bringing more awareness to the big issue?
NI: Unfortunately, many incidents have gone unreported since Steubenville and many other ones that have been reported on a local level and have been buried in different parts of the country and the world. Since then, we’ve made Steubenville the monster: "All those bad strangers over there could never be in our community." Yet, it is unfolding, unfortunately, as we speak. What Steubenville may be for some youth is a way not to get caught: "Hey, don’t put it on the Internet if we’re going to perpetrate these things." At the same time, people may say what happened in our community wasn’t anything like what happened in Steubenville. It may have furthered the conversation about gender-based violence because it raised attention, but from our perspective, it becomes a sensational moment versus the everyday, ongoing kind of commitment to this issue. And that’s a challenge.
AT: You’ve mentioned that one of the goals of Men Can Stop Rape is to help young men identify and embrace a healthy form of masculinity. How challenging is this moving forward?
NI: The dominant story of masculinity is the sexual, the economic and the athletic accomplishments. From the moment we paint the room blue, we’re teaching boys that there’s a particular way to be a boy. And we know what they’re vulnerable to if they step outside that stereotypical definition. When we expose them to an idea that it’s okay to be live outside that definition, many of them can embrace it, because many of us can’t live up to that stereotype anyway.